Hitchcock Reviews: 1955 – 1956
Posted by therebelprince on April 14, 2012
Welcome back to my series of complete Hitchcock reviews. This week we look at three novel works from the mid-50s, sandwiched in between the string of successes that was the early ’50s, and the great works to come.
“Remember, you will only have time for just one shot. If you need another, the risk is yours.”
— “The Man Who Knew Too Much”
The Trouble with Harry (1955)
written by John Michael Hayes, from a novel by Jack Trevor Story
Albert Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) discovers a dead body, convinced he is the killer. Ivy Gravely (Mildred Natwick) discovers a dead body, convinced she is the killer. Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) discovers a dead body, convinced she is the killer. Rather unusually, it’s the same dead body…
While some of his greatest films before 1955 – Rear Window, The Lady Vanishes, Shadow of a Doubt – had often been very funny, Hitchcock’s previous out-and-out comedies, Rich and Strange and Mr & Mrs Smith, had been odd little works: the former fun but silly, the latter mostly a failure. So, no-one could have had high hopes when the great director decided to give it another go. Combining the film’s American financial failure, and the increasing humourlessness of Hitchcock’s future films (North by Northwest and Family Plot aside), a newcomer could be forgiven for assuming The Trouble with Harry to be a disaster.
Yet, it really isn’t. Harry is, in my subjective opinion, a delightful black comedy about – of course – death, Hitch’s favourite subject. The film centres on Harry’s three presumed killers, as well as a local artist (John Forsythe) who manages to bring the trio together and ultimately come up with a plan to avoid prosecution for any of them. Each of the suspects is dealt with so warmly, and clearly didn’t intend to kill anyone, that we can’t help but feel complicit in the effort to get rid of the body. As Harry’s estranged wife, MacLaine – in her film debut – is all whimsy and wit, managing to develop a rapport even with the somewhat listless Forsythe. Faring far better are Glenn and Natwick, both of whom are consummate comedic performers, without every losing sight of their characters’ humanity. Natwick, in particular, is delightful as the ever-so-slightly nutty Miss Gravely, and young Jerry Mathers, as Jennifer’s son Arnie, gets some of the best lines. The boy’s delightfully direct line readings are a blessing in a film where every character is busy hiding their own secrets.
The Trouble with Harry is, by its nature, a slight film, lacking the slick sex appeal of its predecessors, and without the dark intensity of the several films that would follow. But it’s a very funny, defiantly Hitchcock film all the way. I’d argue that, had any of these individual comic moments appeared in another Hitchcock ’50s film, they’d be highly praised. In fact, the movie premiered the day after the first episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the director’s anthology series of 25-minute episodes of suspense and terror. Many of the episodes were blackly comic (and able to be thematically unified, due to the short running length), and The Trouble with Harry is closer to the series’ mandate than to other Hitchcock films.
Or perhaps it was just that Harry, like the films that would follow, was written under optimal circumstances for Hitch. He had his trusty cinematographer Robert Burks for the sixth consecutive time, and it was the third consecutive script for John Michael Hayes, one of his best collaborators. Well-established composer Bernard Herrmann now joined the team, gearing up for some of his most famous film scores. Herrmann’s score for Harry lacks the exhilarating genius of their upcoming collaborations, but it’s suitably bucolic.
The Trouble with Harry has the lightness of middle-era Hitchcock, but it also suggests that left-of-centre attitude which would give most of his remaining works (after the lacklustre Man Who Knew Too Much) their enduring appeal. With a willing screenwriter, a production company more or less at his mercy, and a slowly-disintegrating Production Code, Hitchcock must have been in heaven. It helped that, for this film, he had the ability to edit the source novel’s plot to his heart’s content. The Trouble with Harry is not a classic film, but it’s highly recommended.
Hitch Cameo: Walking past the roadside stand, around the time Forsythe’s character joins the plot.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
written by John Michael Hayes, from the previous film of the same name
When their son is abducted in Morocco, an American couple (James Stewart and Doris Day) must save him, and prevent a political assassination, without informing the law.
It’s a funny thing when an artistic legacy becomes old enough to have a second generation. Modern Doctor Who – often immensely flawed, even if it does have better special effects than its 20th century ancestor – is an odd beast, because it’s written by people who grew up as diehard fans of the original. These people bring to the table not just the attitude of a writer eager to work on a hit series, but of a child in a grown-up’s body, ecstatic to be crafting the journey of a story you loved when young. For John Michael Hayes and the other young writers who joined Hitchcock in the late ’50s and ’60s, this must have been an equally odd experience. To be debating plot points with someone whose films you were actively engaged with for decades? Bizarre.
I can’t say I’m overwhelmed by the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Although Hitchcock had always been interested in remaking it with Americans, the final motivation seems to have mostly been the knowledge that it would be a ‘sure thing’. (Although, admirably, screenwriter Hayes – in his final Hitchcock collaboration – wasn’t allowed to see the original, instead having to write the story with only plot summations from Hitch.)
At 120 minutes, the film doesn’t really have anything new to say, and frankly just drags on and on. Certainly, the entire film is well-directed, with – as usual – a solid supporting cast. The Albert Hall climax (one of the film’s numerous climaxes) is a little more tense this time around but feels overdirected. (Patrick McGilligan, in his esteemed biography of Hitch, notes that the director wanted many more shots of the cymbals during the 12-minute sequence, as he felt that American viewers were less likely to get the point than their British counterparts, if indeed they could distinguish cymbals at all.) But The Man Who Knew Too Much takes a while to get going, and then has so many climaxes that it’s hard to believe so many coincidences. James Stewart is his usual genuine self; not as tuned-in as Rear Window or angst-ridden as Vertigo. Doris Day fares a little better, proving the acting skills which Hitch had first noticed in Stormy Weather. But neither of them are action stars, and even if this was what Hitchcock wanted, it doesn’t help to move this lengthy beast along.
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. The Man Who Knew Too Much is the work of a consummate professional, well-directed by Hitch, working alongside a composer, cinematographer, costume designer, writer, and star he knew well. (Admittedly, his relationship with Hayes was deteriorating, and the writer would not be invited back in future.) What does deserve respect is – unsurprisingly – the direction. In a ten-to-twelve minute sequence at the climax (reconstructed reasonably faithfully from the original), there is basically no dialogue. We’re watching suspects, frightened parents, oblivious audiences, a fitful conductor, and waiting for it all to explode. Crafting that level of tension was what Hitchcock had been working at for more than thirty years.
Perhaps it’s my affection for the original and the director’s other 1930s films, which felt much denser yet more taut in their narrative style. For whatever reason, this film has just never struck a chord with me, and is my least favourite of the director’s ’50s output. Everything to follow would have at least moments of brilliance. The Man Who Knew Too Much just never delivers.
Hitch cameo: Watching acrobats in the Moroccan bazaar, about half an hour into the film. (Generally, in this era, Hitch would appear within the first ten minutes, as the director feared his increasingly public profile would distract from the plot.)
The Wrong Man (1956)
written by Angus McPhail and Maxwell Anderson, from a true story
Down-on-his-luck musician Manny Balaestro (Henry Fonda) is arrested for armed robbery. As his defense attorney (Anthony Quayle) attempts to prove to a dispassionate jury that it is a case of mistaken identity, Manny’s wife (Vera Miles) begins to suffer the trauma of the scandal.
It’s worth remembering that Alfred Hitchcock was a film buff himself. A love of the industry had kept him going during the 1920s, and each passing year saw him screening more and more new and old films at home. In his last years, when a new film was only made on occasion, Hitchcock spent more time than ever keeping up with new releases, as well as enjoying the classics. It’s to his credit, then, that very few of his films (almost none, I’d say) feel like an outsider trying to replicate a genre. The closest he came may have been the screwball comedy attempt of Mr & Mrs Smith. Usually, Hitchcock would merely use tropes of other genres, but expertly graft them on to his own format, as with the film noir look of I Confess or the neo-realist feel of Psycho.
The Wrong Man is an unusual entry in Hitchcock’s canon. It has the personal, character-focussed elements of his 1940s films, with the almost defiantly ‘film-y’ feel of his 1960s films. The Wrong Man is probably one of Hitchcock’s least known middle-era films, yet it has so many links to his other works – the ‘wrong man’ theme, the courtroom drama, the sense of a world that isn’t paradise – and it certainly deserves to be seen.
At the film’s core, Henry Fonda is marvellous as the title character, perfectly portraying the downtrodden nature of a victim of the system, in a way that Montgomery Clift wasn’t quite able to achieve in I Confess. Clift is perhaps the more “trained” actor of the two, but Fonda has a natural, subtle way about him that was beyond the training of Clift. Anthony Quayle, unsurprisingly, puts in an effortlessly watchable performace as the attorney. And Vera Miles – an actress whom Hitchcock adored but, through timing, never quite became one of his leading ladies – puts in a realistic, affecting turn as Rose.
Unusually, for an era that includes such fluff as To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest, Hitch was fascinated by the real trial on which the film was based, and took great pains to make a film that accurately depicted the situation. This verisimilitude included extensive location shooting (even shooting in a real, working prison!). Hitch – working, as usual, with cinematographer Robert Burks – goes to great lengths to keep things visually interesting. The increasing emptiness of the courtroom as Manny reaches sentencing, for instance, and the stark angles as Rose collapses into depression. The director returned to black-and-white here, committing fully to creating a film noir experience, yet ignoring much of the pomp and circumstance that one associates with Humphrey Bogart or Barbara Stanwyck. (Hitch disliked the method actors he worked with, yet he was able to coax wonderfully gritty performances out of Fonda and Miles, which wouldn’t be seen again until Tippi Hedren – on a less powerful level – in Marnie).
But the black-and-white is no film noir gimmick. Whereas the full power of Psycho means that many people wrongly remember it as being a colour film, no one could forget the monochrome of The Wrong Man. This is a deeply grim tale, an indictment of the system, but it manages to avoid the longueurs of the similarly downcast I Confess. Admittedly, Hitch’s devotion to realism denies him one of his greatest strengths: his imagination and inventiveness. Nowhere in The Wrong Man does the director need to steadily zoom across an entire room, or replicate chases through famous monuments. Instead, Hitchcock relies here on his craft. This is an intricate, melancholy film, and the angriest Hitchcock had ever been about an issue. (Aside from the ‘troubles’ in Juno and the Paycock and – if you want to go there – the fascination with psychology in Spellbound, this is about as issue-heavy as Hitchcock gets until Torn Curtain.) The Wrong Man is yet another example of a film that should be seen by Hitchcock fans, and a precursor of what the 1960s would bring.
Hitch Cameo: Not really a cameo this time, as the man himself opens the film to explain that The Wrong Man is a true story.
Next time: I’ll take a look at Hitchcock’s contributions to television.